Red Hot Chili Peppers: Unlimited Love Cover Artwork
Critically acclaimed Australian rocker Nick Cave once quipped "I'm forever near a stereo saying 'What the fuck is this garbage?' And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers."
You've probably heard similar insults hurled at the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the past. Favorites include they're a watered down Faith No More, whitewashed Parliament-Funkadelic posers, pop-funk nonsense, just really want you to know they're from Los Angeles, California. Robert Christgau once referred to them as "new age fuck fiends," while Punk rock icon Steve Albini has humorously described watching Trouble Funk kill their set opening for the Chili Peppers before bolting "two bars into the yabba dabba doo." For as successful as the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been (both critically and commercially), they sure do catch a lot of shit.
Part of that can be attributed to when they really found their popularity: the '90s, a decade embodied by an alternative scene that scoffed at the excesses of '80s cock rock, thrust into motion by Seattle's grunge revolution and thriving on a cocktail of layered irony and self-destructive misery. And here come these wacky, over-the-top funk rockers a la Extreme who start writing sensual ballads in between jumping around stage with their shirts off. It's no wonder they didn't exactly fit in with the cool kids. And let's be fair: they have their fair share of good tunes. Sure, they're more of a Greatest Hitsband, but having an albums' worth of memorable songs in your back catalogue is a feat in and of itself. They're also composed of three very talented musicians in bassist Flea, guitarist John Frusciante, and drummer Chad Smith. Even the clear weak link, frontman Anthony Kiedis, was sometimes profound (i.e. "Under the Bridge," "Otherside"), while maintaining some measure of fun in his goofball antics. They deserve at least a little respect.
However, if you are one of those unmoved cool kids, turn back now. Unlimited Love isn't going to convert non-believers. It might not even enthrall existing zealots. It's a reunion of sorts. After a decade away from the band exploring the world of electronic music, Frusciante returns, replacing Josh Klinghoffer (who, by the way, performed admirably on the band's previous two records, I'm With You and The Getaway). And longtime co-conspirator and hip-hop Gandalf himself, Rick Rubin, returns on the production side after their affair with Danger Mouse on 2016's The Getaway.
The resulting album is...well, it's a Red Hot Chili Peppers album. That is to say it has a few memorable tunes that don't justify an hour plus record. This time they're running for an hour and 13 minutes to be exact, so not as bad as their unearned two hour long song dump Stadium Arcadium but still indigestible to just about anyone not already a Red Hot Chili Pepper zealot. It opens with "Black Summer," maybe the sharpest track on the album, where Frusciante delivers one of his signature "Under the Bridge" sounding chord progressions and Kiedis tries his damndest to ruin it by singing "sailing on a censor-ship".
The problem is that, outside of "Black Summer" there are really only a few other worthy cuts. "Aquatic Mouth Dance" and "Let 'Em Cry" are funky fun (coincidentally both benefit from some jazzy trumpet parts), while "White Braids & Pillow Chair" represent the breezier side of their repertoire. "It's Only Natural" contains some of Frusciante's most compositionally atmospheric work on the record. It also signals the return of his heavenly vocal harmonies that actually work really well with Kiedis' staccato singing. After that, we're running on fumes. Maybe you'll enjoy the album's first real attempt at hard rock energy on "These Are the Ways," interesting in its moving parts but also marred by an inane chorus of "these are the ways when you come from America/the sights, the sounds, the smells" and a lack of raw power. It's like "Dani California" in that sense.
Otherwise, the tracks range from bland ballads to forgettable forays into nocturnal semi-funky pop rock. They're a tight group, but not really adventurous, which is a quality you'd really want on an album this long. Pretty soon they settle into a pleasant albeit unremarkable groove. And that's not to mention Kiedis' attempts at lyric writing. For context, he's 59 years old now, and only two songs in he's dropping lines like "bangin' hot with those daddy issues." Oofda. Really putting the "sex" in "sexagenarian." He sounds similarly out of touch when rapping on "One Way Traffic," flaunting rudimentary rhymes like "Unaware and on her walk/I hit the brakes, made time to talk/She said, 'Can I get that ride?'/Oh my God, just get inside" which, might've passed in 1984, but are horrifically obsolete in 2022. "Poster Child" plays like a '70s porno, decked out in wah-wahed guitars and features Kiedis pulling a "We Didn't Start the Fire" with the lyrics. "The '70s was such a win, playing the Led Zepp-e-lin" and "Dave Mushegain Copenhagen, cowboy ghost of Ronald Reagan/Dollar save was Flavor-Flavin', Cosmic rays of Carl Sagan" isn't far off from "Pope Paul, Malcolm X/British Politician sex/J.F.K. blown away/What else do I have to say?," and it wasn't cool when Billy Joel did it.
You can do a whole lot worse than Unlimited Love, its main sin homogeneity rather than insufferableness. Hell, you can certainly do a whole lot worse than Red Hot Chili Peppers, especially in the pop rock sphere. On a pure instrumental level, there's a lot of skill on display here. And for some fans, hearing the band back together again, captured in high definition clarity, will make the protracted experience worth it. It's nostalgia bait. But for those who don't share that perspective, there's not much worthy of their Greatest Hits canon. (www.redhotchilipeppers.com)